Why is science doing so poorly in the fight against cancer?

We all know that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the outcome to change is a mark of insanity. It's time for some fresh ideas on cancer research.

As thousands of women line up to run Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life this summer, few will be aware of how poorly science is doing in the fight against cancer. It’s not something anyone likes to talk about. But now, after years of silence, two dissenters have come along at once.

Few of us are untouched by cancer. If it is not a personal experience, we know someone whose life has been, or is being, affected by this most hideous of life’s processes. Everyone wants to do something about this scourge of modern living. That was why, in 1971, President Nixon declared war on cancer. He had all the confidence of a man whose national space agency had just left human footprints on the moon. Making an impact on cancer has proved much harder, however. We are now better at combating childhood leukaemia than we were, but few other cancers have succumbed to science.

In 1950, cancer killed 193 per 100,000 people. In 2004, the numbers were hardly changed: 186. Many billions of dollars and 54 years of research had saved seven lives out of every 100,000. It’s hardly a success story, especially when compared with the 63 per cent drop in death rates from cardiovascular disease over the same period. We have made a huge difference by using preventative information – getting people to stop smoking and exercise more, for instance. Curing cancer that has already taken hold, though, remains a matter of battering it with chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Those kinds of figures are why, in 2007, the deputy director of the US National Cancer Institute asked Paul Davies to get involved. Davies is a physicist; speaking of his forays into cancer research at a New Scientist event in London this month, he acknowledged the problems of invading other people’s research territory. Nonetheless, he suggests, a fresh set of brains asking dumb questions is not always a bad thing.

So far, the result of his work with other physicists is to suggest that cancer may be an extremely ancient cellular program that creates a secondary, competing organism within the body. Davies sees the program as a genie in the bottle: when something – stress, or some kind of injury to the cell – breaks the bottle, the genie is released. Spending billions on examining cancer cells is like examining the shards of the bottle while ignoring the genie, Davies reckons.

Just as left-field is Maurice Saatchi’s incursion into the cancer arena. The former ad executive is even less (formally) qualified than Davies to offer critiques of the cancer establishment, but he is far more belligerent. Watching his wife die of ovarian cancer, Saatchi was struck by what he calls the “medieval” nature of the treatment options currently available. In April, he told the New Statesman of his decision to launch a private member’s bill in the House of Lords in order to give doctors more scope to try innovative unlicensed treatments.

The medical research establishment will no doubt scoff at Saatchi’s call; yet it is not always a bad thing to approach a scientific field with the heart as well as the head. The IVF pioneer Robert Edwards was spurred into action by his friendship with a couple who were unable to have children. Whether or not Davies or Saatchi are ultimately successful in their attempts to regain some ground in our fight against cancer is not really the point. The point is to acknowledge that fresh ideas are required.

We all know that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the outcome to change is a mark of insanity. Let’s end this cancer madness now.

Researchers working at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

#Match4Lara
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#Match4Lara: Lara has found her match, but the search for mixed-race donors isn't over

A UK blood cancer charity has seen an "unprecedented spike" in donors from mixed race and ethnic minority backgrounds since the campaign started. 

Lara Casalotti, the 24-year-old known round the world for her family's race to find her a stem cell donor, has found her match. As long as all goes ahead as planned, she will undergo a transplant in March.

Casalotti was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia in December, and doctors predicted that she would need a stem cell transplant by April. As I wrote a few weeks ago, her Thai-Italian heritage was a stumbling block, both thanks to biology (successful donors tend to fit your racial profile), and the fact that mixed-race people only make up around 3 per cent of international stem cell registries. The number of non-mixed minorities is also relatively low. 

That's why Casalotti's family launched a high profile campaign in the US, Thailand, Italy and the US to encourage more people - especially those from mixed or minority backgrounds - to register. It worked: the family estimates that upwards of 20,000 people have signed up through the campaign in less than a month.

Anthony Nolan, the blood cancer charity, also reported an "unprecedented spike" of donors from black, Asian, ethcnic minority or mixed race backgrounds. At certain points in the campaign over half of those signing up were from these groups, the highest proportion ever seen by the charity. 

Interestingly, it's not particularly likely that the campaign found Casalotti her match. Patient confidentiality regulations protect the nationality and identity of the donor, but Emily Rosselli from Anthony Nolan tells me that most patients don't find their donors through individual campaigns: 

 It’s usually unlikely that an individual finds their own match through their own campaign purely because there are tens of thousands of tissue types out there and hundreds of people around the world joining donor registers every day (which currently stand at 26 million).

Though we can't know for sure, it's more likely that Casalotti's campaign will help scores of people from these backgrounds in future, as it has (and may continue to) increased donations from much-needed groups. To that end, the Match4Lara campaign is continuing: the family has said that drives and events over the next few weeks will go ahead. 

You can sign up to the registry in your country via the Match4Lara website here.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.